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Clean Energy Industry Faces COVID-19 Challenges, Looks to Support Economic Recovery

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee convened a June 16 hearing to examine the impacts of COVID-19 on the energy industry.  I was privileged to be invited to testify on behalf of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and its subsidiary, the Clean Energy Business Network and speak to the COVID-19 impacts felt by clean energy industries.

The pandemic is first and foremost a public health crisis of an unprecedented scale in the United States and around the world, with over 120,000 lives lost in the United States to date.

The efforts to try to control the spread of the coronavirus, through stay-at-home orders and other measures, that have dramatically altered business and social activity in many parts of the country since early March. During this time, the energy sector has performed essential services to society by providing reliable power and energy resources to communities.

Though limiting the spread of the pandemic and ensuring that people can meet their basic needs remain the focus for policymakers and communities, planning for economic recovery will allow businesses to make sustainable plans and give millions of families the promise of financial stability when it is safe to return to work in impacted industries.

Here are the three main points I made to Congress on the impacts of COVID-19 on clean energy industries, and how legislators can support a path to recovery:

  • The U.S. clean energy workforce was expanding pre-COVID-19, and now the sector is facing economic challenges and dramatic job losses.
  • The federal government can take actions to provide near-term relief to clean energy industries and workers in this time of crisis.
  • And, clean energy industries can be drivers of the economic recovery. The federal government can ensure a swift return to pre-pandemic growth with policy support that could reach nearly every community in America.

The Challenge: Job Losses in Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy

The U.S. energy sector supported 6.8 million jobs at the start of 2020, according to the independent U.S. Energy and Employment Report released in March 2020.[1] The energy sector saw 1.8% job growth in 2019.

Clean energy sectors, specifically, supported over 3.4 million jobs at the end of 2019, with around 70% of those jobs in small businesses. Solar photovoltaic installers and wind turbine technicians represented the fastest-growing job sectors in America.[2]

Unfortunately, COVID-19 and the associated activity restrictions have erased the last five years of job growth for the clean energy sector. Based on data from March and April 2020, the energy sector lost 1.3 million jobs since early March, a 13% percent decline.[3]

Updated research released June 15 (which includes data from May) by E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs), BW Research Partnership, E4TheFuture, and the American Council on Renewable Energy covering the energy efficiency, renewable energy, clean vehicles, grid and storage, and clean fuels sectors shows 620,590 jobs lost, with energy efficiency and renewable energy workers being hardest hit with more than 500,000 job losses (431,800 and 100,000 respectively). While the rate of job loss slowed in May compared to April and March for these clean energy sectors, over 27,000 jobs were shed last month.

Many of these losses are due to stay-at-home orders or other restrictions that stopped onsite energy efficiency and renewable energy installations.  Non-essential construction stopped, and many building and project sites were closed.

Utility clean energy programs across the country have ceased, impacting workers who provide demand-side management, renewable energy, and energy efficiency installations and services.

The clean energy project and investment pipeline has been significantly interrupted. Project construction and permitting has been delayed, financing has been slowed, and supply chains have been disrupted.

The Path Forward: Powering Forward with Clean Energy

A safe, resilient and reliable energy system is critical to managing the current health crisis and rebounding the economy when the time is right.

While clean energy industries have experienced economic hardship as a result of business conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, they have contributed to the resilience of our communities during this difficult time, and will be there to help lead a robust economic recovery.

The federal government can provide immediate relief to clean energy industries in the short-term to provide business continuity and can enact policy measures that catalyze investment and create jobs in clean energy industries to support economic renewal.

The 2020 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, released before the pandemic reached the U.S., focused on a different workforce challenge: difficulty hiring skilled workers to meet growing demand for clean energy deployment. The clean energy industry is poised, not only to recovery the jobs it had at the beginning of 2020, but to continue its trajectory to make up the majority of U.S. energy jobs.

See BCSE’s written testimony for additional details on the types of federal policy measures that would deliver near-term relief to clean energy industries and enable these industries to help the economy “build back better.”

About the Author: Lisa Jacobson is the President of Business Council for Sustainable Energy

[1] 2020 U.S. Energy & Employment Report

[2] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

[3] Clean Energy Employment Initial Impacts from the COVID-19 Economic Crisis, April 2020